It is the Christian season of Lent so I am reading about the closing days of Jesus’ ministry from David Seccombe’s book, The King of God’s Kingdom.
Many scholars have devoted pages to the question of the seeming discrepancy between John’s gospel and the others about the dating of the Last Supper.
Actually there is no discrepancy about the days of the week. All agree that the Last Supper was on Thursday evening and the crucifixion was on Friday. The discrepancy is about when the Passover was that year. John has the crucifixion on the day that the Passover lambs would have been sacrificed. The normal practice was to eat the Passover meal that evening. But the other gospels say that the Last Supper was a Passover meal. So you might think that the Passover sacrifices took place on Thursday that year.
The Talmud agrees with John that Jesus was “hanged” on the eve of Passover, what we might call the day of Passover. For us the evening of a day is part of that day. So Christmas eve is actually the day before Christmas. But for those who count sundown as the end of the day as Jews do, Passover eve included the daylight hours of the evening when the Passover meal took place.
Astronomy also supports John and the Talmud. In the most likely years for the crucifixion of Jesus, Passover eve would have been on a Friday.
But the synoptic gospels all say the Last Supper was a Passover meal. This early became a theme of Christian spirituality and devotion (see 1 Corinthians 5:7). So it seems like a contradiction. Passover eve was Thursday for the Matthew, Mark and Luke. But it was Friday for John.
But this may be one case where you really can harmonize the gospel accounts. Seccombe argues that the time of eating the Passover meal was flexible. Even the Torah makes provision for logistical problems with celebrating Passover on the usual day (Numbers 9:11). There is evidence that the common people of Jesus’ time often sacrificed a lamb at a different time, but used it for a Passover meal.
There were real logistical problems. Josephus estimated that at a Passover during the time of the emperor Nero, 2,700,000 people observed Passover at Jerusalem. Thousands and thousands of lambs were sacrificed on Passover eve. They had big channels at the temple to carry all the blood away. Still there were probably not enough lambs killed for everyone to have for a Passover meal. So people began resorting to Exodus 12:6, which literally says the lambs must be sacrificed “between the two evenings”. This allowed for a flexibility that would include eating a Passover meal on the previous evening.
So there is no need to claim that Jesus and his disciples followed a different calendar or to resort to other ingenious solutions.
My family and I have not celebrated Christmas on Christmas day for years. It is because of logistical difficulties. This year we exchanged gifts with the grandchildren on the fifth day of Christmas and joked about no one getting any golden rings. So it is easy for me to see how you could shift a holiday celebration.
Official celebrations in temple and church with clergy will likely follow a set calendar. But families and private groups may vary celebrations for convenience. I would not be surprised if there was some elasticity to such celebrations in the first century.
A further thought of mine about this is that the priests were really busy at Passover. It is remarkable that they devoted so much time to a conspiracy against Jesus. But it is easier to see them doing so on Thursday evening than on Friday evening.